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The Herring Lass, by Michelle Cahill

Reader reviews

Crossing intellectual, historical, and geographical space, as well as inner and outer geographies of self, The Herring Lass achieves that most extraordinary thing in a poetry that is as richly metaphorical and as well wrought as this, the attention to the ethical. Cahill sifts through the detritus of history and the debris of the present to interrogate injustice—animals hunted to extinction or near extinction, refugees abandoned to their fate, men or women seeking redemption. All this is in a beautifully wrought language that never overwhelms but underscores her themes.

Her contemporary lyric, in which rapture and grief collide, is emblematic of a poetic consciousness alert to erasure, exclusion, and appropriation. If it is imperialism’s slave trade in “Harbour” then it is the plight of refugees in “Interlude”.

Submerged beneath the musical tenor of her elegant, unswerving line, Cahill refocuses the lyrical as considered rather than ecstatic. Her lyric promotes an initially distancing effect, achieved through the utilisation often of the ekphrastic, but turns elegiac, confronting. Her double-voiced lyric simultaneously enacts desire and grief.

The Herring Lass challenges the notion of discrete borders: historical, geographical, cultural, animal, human. It showcases Cahill's lyric at its best. Through her poetic, the sensual music of her lines and the metaphorical richness of her poetry, she exposes all that is violent, imperialistic, and exclusionary. She conjoins ethics to poetry without didacticism, remaining true to poetry’s provocations. She joins the global to the local. She is a world poet as much as a local one.

Tina Giannoukos Rochford Street Review, 13 Feb 2018

In The Herring Lass, Australian poet Michelle Cahill’s lyrical writing and vast purview cover the creatures, coves, and distant cries of many places. With one eye on the specters of colonization that linger in so many landscapes, Cahill poses pictures like questions, slices of stories laid out in briny detail for readers to enter into and then take into themselves to find answers.

World Literature Today, November 2017, 13 Feb 2018

What is unusual and worth celebrating – in addition to Cahill’s aforementioned investment in the skilful manipulation of form – is the way in which Cahill’s concern and poetics challenge dominant understandings of placeness. Specifically Cahill interrogates and challenges the frameworks of localism through a thematic emphasis on migration and a post-colonial critique of Empire.

Obviously influenced by the work of the Scottish poets Robin Robertson (whose poetry forms an epigraph to the volume) and Simon Armitage, among others, Cahill writes with a similar image-dense musicality. Each word and line is weighted for sound, off rhymed stanzaic forms and sonnets dominating the volume. But where Robertson and Armitage use these poetics to deepen the local, Cahill signals that her concern is to place the local within a wider framework. The setting of the poem, a day on the docks, is very specifically drawn but is bookended by twin images of ‘a whole fleet, outward bound’ and the ‘shoals of migrant herring the sea returns’ (11). Cahill’s poetics binds these images of departure and returns musically to the local particularities of the docks. They then become part of the cohesive whole not external foreign elements.

The Herring Lass excels at, is an ecopoetics of deterritorialization or eco-cosmopolitanism. Deterritorialization, in the words of Ursula Heise ‘implies that the average daily life, in the context of globality, is shaped by structures, processes, and products that originate elsewhere’

Humourous, political, lush and never compromising in lyric quality, The Herring Lass darts and weaves like a school of fish through existing traditions and narratives, compelling readers to look and listen to the obscured human and other-than-human voices of our history and our present.

Caitlin Maling Southerly, Vol 77, Issue, 13 Feb 2018